HUNTERSVILLE – A two-day analysis of town priorities and paths to achieve them took a detour when elected leaders and department heads addressed the elephant not in the room: a town manager.
The resignation of Gerry Vincent on Monday, Jan. 22 – an immediate aftermath of his arrest the night before for misdemeanor simple assault – kicked off a week of uncertainty for staff members and elected officials. It also led to the addition of “Transition Alternatives” as an agenda topic on the first day of the town’s annual planning retreat three days later.
“Obviously, we are at another crossroads,” Mayor John Aneralla said to initiate the discussion. He then emphasized that the goal was to reach a decision about how, and how fast, efforts should be made to fill the town’s administrative vacancy.
“We need a definitive direction,” he said, adding he thought it was vital for Jackie Huffman, the transitioning assistant town manager who became acting chief administrator when Vincent resigned, to “have a hard sense of where we are.”
The first issue was to gauge Huffman’s interest in a permanent assignment as town manager. That possibility was something Max Buchanan, the town’s engineer and public works director, strongly endorsed.
“I would move all issues out of the way and make Jackie town manager in a heartbeat,” Buchanan said. He added that “I’d work for her” and said he believed most town staff members would agree with his stance.
But Huffman, who joined the town staff as finance director in April 2016 – and in the days leading up to the retreat was completing a 90-day evaluation period to assume additional duties as assistant town manager – said she didn’t want the permanent post.
“I like what I’ve done here,” she told commissioners and staff members, “but I believe the level of commitment I’m willing to make today (as town manager) is short-term.”
Huffman told commissioners, “I am interested in helping you find a really good town manager.”
She also said she doesn’t believe the town should spend time looking for a temporary fix to the staffing issue.
“You have a knowledgeable staff. I don’t think you need an outside interim person,” Huffman told commissioners. And in response to commissioner inquiries about the possibility of securing the services of a temporary replacement, Huffman was quick to point out what she viewed as a potential drawback to hiring someone unfamiliar with town and regional operations.
“We’re all pretty busy, and I don’t want to have to spend time telling someone who Dena Diorio is,” Huffman said, referencing the Mecklenburg County manager.
Buchanan agreed with Huffman, saying he believed waiting to find a permanent town manager would be a better approach than hiring someone in a temporary capacity.
“For the staff, transitioning is the most difficult thing,” Buchanan said. “You don’t want to have to do it twice.”
Steps to take
With Huffman’s stance clarified, town board members asked Human Resources Director Vickie Brock for advice on the process and parameters of a search for town manager candidates. Brock recommended a nationwide effort conducted by an outside agency. She said she knew of several firms that specialize in similar searches and estimated it would cost about $20,000 for those companies to oversee all aspects of the process. Brock also told commissioners they would be able to establish specific guidelines for the search firm to follow.
Commissioners, acknowledging comments from Huffman and Buchanan, endorsed the concept of foregoing a search for temporary personnel but also expressed concern about the workload being placed on a short-handed staff.
“We have a great staff,” Commissioner Dan Boone said, “but how long before that racehorse starts breaking down?”
Boone was referencing a current executive staffing situation that has two people doing the work that, just 13 months ago, involved four.
In January 2017, Greg Ferguson resigned as town manager. Vincent filled that spot on an interim basis before accepting an appointment as town manager in July. Several months later, Huffman was tabbed to become assistant manager as well as finance director. With Vincent gone, the administrative posts are now filled by Huffman and Assistant to the Town Manager Christina Schildgen.
Commissioner Mark Gibbons, recognizing the extra responsibilities staff members are assuming, said he would support foregoing the interim search “unless somebody cries uncle.”
The board then instructed Brock to gather information about potential search firms and update the board as soon as possible, perhaps by the next town board meeting on Monday, Feb. 5.
In the meantime, Schildgen was authorized to share information about Huntersville’s open position when she attends the winter meeting of the North Carolina City and County Management Association seminar in Winston-Salem Jan. 31 through Feb. 2.
Board members also agreed to put staff appointment items on the Feb. 5 agenda. The current plan is to designate Huffman as interim town manager and to appoint Pattie Ellis, currently assistant finance director, to interim finance director.
Town courting tennis partnership
A planning retreat update from Huntersville Parks and Recreation Director Michael Jaycocks included a partnership proposal to address the need for additional tennis court space.
In his presentation to commissioners, Jaycocks said a 25-year agreement with the Community School of Davidson (CSD) would give town-supervised tennis activities access to eight courts planned at the school’s new athletic complex. The 40-acre CSD site near the Bud Henderson Road-Beatties Ford Road intersection is envisioned to include facilities for all CSD sports teams and host classroom field trips and other school-related activities.
The partnership arrangement outlined by Jaycocks would involve an investment of $150,000 from the town’s Tourism Fund Balance to help finance the $800,000 project.
The first phase would include the construction of eight lighted tennis courts at the athletic complex, with the potential to add four more courts in a future phase. Jaycocks said he also expects the Lake Norman Tennis Association – the organization that schedules the most court time through the parks and recreation department – to participate in the project financing, contributing as much as $50,000.
“Tennis court time is in very high demand,” Jaycocks said. “We have courts at North Mecklenburg Park and Holbrook Park but not enough.”
The town would have access to the courts when CSD is not using them. The revenue from court rental, according to Jaycocks’ outline, would offset anticipated town expenditures for lighting and maintenance.
The parks and recreation report also included an update on greenways. In that report, Jaycocks said the town’s continuing partnerships with Mecklenburg County, a tunnel being built under Interstate 77 and other connections completed and planned between greenway sections were all progressing.
His summation, highlighting progress on the west side of I-77 in combination with changes planned around Huntersville Elementary School, indicated that within five years there will be an uninterrupted seven-mile greenway link between N.C. 73 at Birkdale Village and Huntersville Town Hall